The theme of civil and human rights ruled the day inside of the East Room of the White House as President Joe Biden awarded 17 Presidential Medals of Freedom.
The recipients included civil and human rights icons Fred David Gray Sr., Dianne Nash; Sister Simone Campbell; and Dr. Julieta Villarreal Garcia.
An Alabama native, Gray served as a lawyer who represented the likes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Nash was an activist, attorney and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee founder who organized college students towards democracy through student sit-ins. Campbell, a nun and member of Sisters of Social Services, helped to pass the Affordable Care Act by guiding the “Nuns on the Bus” tour across the nation to protect the poor.
And pioneering educator Dr. Julieta Villarreal Garcia became the first Mexican American woman to lead an American college or university.
In the sector of sports, Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe were honored. Biles, one of the most decorated athletes of all-time, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her athletic accolades and advocacy for mental health.
In an interview following the ceremony, Biles said the Medal of Freedom was different than her others awards because she was honored to be in the company of the other recipients.
Rapinoe, an Olympian and World Cup Champion, is not only a protector of LGBTQIA Americans, but led a campaign to ensure equal compensation for women in sports.
Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington will be awarded his Medal of Freedom at a later ceremony. Throughout the years, Washington has served as one of the silver screens leading men and has given the world more nuanced performance of the Black experience.
Rounding out the ceremony with shining examples of perseverance were former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Khizr M. Khan, and Sandra Leisa Lindsay.
Giffords’ escaped the grip of death due to gun violence that shook the conscious of the nation, where she had to learn to walk, speak, and write again. When Khizr Khan’s son, Army Captain Humayun Khan, paid the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, Khan, the father of a Gold Star Muslim family, turned pain into purpose to become a foremost defender of the values of the U.S. Constitution and the embodiment of its highest ideals.
An immigrant from Jamaica, Sandra Lindsay is a nurse from Queens, New York and the first American to be vaccinated against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials. At the height of the pandemic, she directed a team of nurses as they worked tirelessly to save patients while risking their lives. When the COVID-19 vaccine became available, she was a ray of light in the darkest hours. She continues to champion vaccinations and mental health for health care workers.
In his closing statements of the ceremony, President Biden stated, “This is America. All of these recipients represent the best of America.”
The Medal of Freedom was established by President Harry S. Truman by Executive Order 9586 of July 6, 1945 and was renamed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy by Executive order 11095 of February 22, 1963.
It is the highest civil award bestowed by the American Government—awarded by the President of the United States to those persons deemed to have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. The Medal is awarded to American citizens and citizens of the world and may be awarded posthumously.
Words and Photos: Dr. Maurice Hobson